A lesser place in your absence…

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A surfer at Sunset Beach, Hawaii – not quite making it over. The waves would break just as well, even if she wasn’t there. Life can be like this. Schools shouldn’t.

Success can be determined in many ways, but for a school it needs to be by how valued a child feels, an individual’s sense of worth. An academic program needs to be designed to foster a learner’s voice in the process of learning, to not only be a valuable contributor to the process, but also to feel like a valuable contributor – to feel like the classroom would be a lesser place in your absence. This is what success should look like in a school.

 

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Love, Respect & the Legitimacy of a Child’s World

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‘To have respect for children is more than recognizing their potentialities in the abstract.’ The Hundred Languages of Children (2013) Image-Nana’s Christmas Pavlova, 2015 Yum.

Intersections of the worlds of adults and children are hazy places. As adults, in our schools and homes, we  live in these places every day, but often don’t see them, or at least don’t recognize them. Reggio Emilia, a glorious Italian city, has some great perspectives that may help clear some of the haze. The distinction between love and respect in the Reggio Emilia approach can challenge some fairly deeply embedded assumptions. Do we love children? As teachers and parents, the answer is an easy, yes, but is it enough?

Respect gives us a different perspective and an additional challenge as David Hawkins relates in The 100 Languages of Children (2013):

Respect for the young is not a passive hands off attitude. It invites our own offering of resources…Love without respect can blind and bind…To have respect for children is more than recognizing their potentialities in the abstract, it is also to seek out and value their accomplishments – however small these may appear by normal standards of adults…An environment of ‘loving adults’ who are themselves alienated from the world around them is an educational vacuum. (p. 79-80)

Hawkins states that ‘we too easily learn only what we are prepared to accept,’ words that challenge us to question our readiness to accept the legitimacy of a child’s world. How far will we go to lift the haze? Love this book.

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What me I’ll be?

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I never would have thought that part of the ‘me I’ll be’ would involve raising chickens, among other surprises along the way.

When navigating life (and this takes some navigating) it’s always better to keep two versions of yourself in mind – the me you are and the me you’ll be. The exception to this of course is if you are buying clothes. You need clothes that fit the me you are!

I heard this explained to a man trying on a suit the other day. He said that the size he was trying on was a bit tight, but he would be losing a few kilos soon, so it would probably be alright. The fitter told him to buy a suit for his body today, because he could always come back and get another for his new minus 5kg self tomorrow, or the next day, week or year when this new self materialised. I thought this to be good advice for our physical selves, but what about our other selves?

I wonder, as grown-ups, how we imagine this uncertain future. There has been a lot of interest in fostering a creative spirit when children are young. I think that it takes a great deal of creativity to imagine this ‘me I’ll be’. Of the seemingly endless array of possibilities, how do we choose? How could we even know the options?

We often ask children what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a tough question and it is also the wrong question, or at least the wrong way to phrase it, I think. The question seems to assume that we will suddenly realize when we have reached grown-up status (I’m still waiting for confirmation) and that we will be ‘there’ at that point. The logic seems flawed considering our incremental development, the rate of change in today’s world and the focus on lifelong learning that is fostered, so often, in schools. If growth is about learning, are we ever grown-up?

We may need to rethink the way we ask this question to children and we also may need to keep asking a version of it to our possibly grown-up selves: What me do I want to be for the next step in my journey?

…at least until we confirm that we’ve finally grown up.

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True Beauty

Abbie's Portrait

Self-portrait by Abbie Rentoule

The image above is one of my favorite pieces or art, a self-portrait by my wonderful younger daughter who is doing the IB Diploma Program. Students were tasked with creating a self-portrait that represented their individual identities, incorporating elements from their various cultural backgrounds.

My daughter explained to me that the idea of the golden cracks was taken from a form of pottery in Japan where broken fragments are reconstructed, not hiding the flaws, but accentuating them using gold leaf with the idea that true beauty is realized not through an ideal perfection, but through the uniqueness of imperfection. What a magnificent idea.

In my own experiences of art at school we drew and painted, but in a process devoid of any sort of deeper conceptualization. When I was in art class at school, I just drew bad pictures. You have to love a conceptually driven curriculum for this. It is the Japanese sakura and the Australian wattle that are represented in the background, in case you were wondering. I love it when our children amaze us.

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Intellectual Risk: What tethers us?

Intellectual Risks: A lesson from the high ropes. Recognize your supports when pushing the limit.

One of the ten International Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profile attributes is Risk-taker. As we know that our brains react to both physical and emotional threats in a similar fashion, physical challenges can teach us a lot about meeting  the demands of an intellectual challenge, with all the emotional threat that this may involve.

The dreaded classroom presentation is a great example to compare to the high ropes course; it being particularly apt due to that primitive amygdala of ours, which takes over when we think that things may not go well for us, either on a wooden platform 20 meters above the ground or in front of the class.

On the high ropes, we manage our fear because we are tethered in a physical sense, or at least I hope you are if you ever go up. When students get up in front of the class to present, what tethers them? What can they use to override their self-preserving fight or flight responses in the face of an emotional threat.

Having observed a class of Grade 7 students encouraging each other on the high ropes last week, I would say that the supportive culture of classmates is as much a tether as the safety rope connected to their harness. Knowing that you will be supported by your peers, regardless of how you do, is the strongest tether we can have when taking an intellectual risk. Building this supportive culture in the classroom and recognizing its impact is a vital step in the empowerment of our students as risk-takers. How explicit do we make this in our classrooms?

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Wild meat, bully burgers & honest advice

Students received some very honest advice last week from Lois-Ann Yamanaka, prominent contemporary Hawaiian author. As a former English teacher (although I am guessing that Lois-Ann will always be a teacher at heart), she is well positioned to help our aspiring young writers and also those who do not yet know that they are aspiring – because that’s what school’s about. Lois-Ann told our students to write from their heart, not their head. Heart to Hand. The consequence of not writing from the heart, Lois-Ann explained, is poor writing, this being expressed by the author with greater clarity, of course. It is our own stories and emotions (the fears, the hope, the anger, the love) that should provide our inspiration to move the reader with our writing. Successful writing is measured in laughter and tears.

This powerful piece of advice resonated with the audience, students and teachers alike. We enjoyed the stories and were confronted with the insidious reality of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of minority groups in Hawaii. With a wonderfully vivid character like Lovey to place these complex ideas in context, I think we all left with a deeper understanding of this world in which we live and an awareness of issues to confront as we move through our lives. Afterwards, one of my students remarked that she had never considered how powerful words could be – to empower and also to repress. It was a new thought, a new idea in her mind, a new kernel of truth in her heart – and who knows where this will lead. Thank you Lois-Ann Yamanaka for sharing your stories.

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Enthusiasm & Engagement

I was recently in Rochester, NY for a few days and had the opportunity to visit Susan B. Anthony House. With no idea who Susan B. Anthony was, except that she was associated with campaigning for the right of woman to vote in the U.S., I didn’t know what to expect from the expedition. We were there for an hour and I emerged from this three story wooden house with a new hero – Susan B. Anthony. It’s an incredible story of strength, courage and resilience.  Our guide was an amazing person as well, drawing us into the story as we walked the wooden floors, retelling tales in magnificent detail, with a passion that was infectious.

I had been running a teacher-training workshop at the time and we had been exploring ways to engage students through service learning opportunities. Listening to the guide in this house so full of history, I was reminded that the love of the subject matter by the teacher is an important ingredient.  It was a fortunate moment to reflect on how powerful a teacher’s enthusiasm can be in helping to engage a student.  It certainly worked on me. The question is, how can we foster enthusiasm in the classroom? A good question as we continue to search for ways to deepen levels of engagement in the learning process in our schools.

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